One Big Family

Polina had been the school’s principal and math teacher for forty years. She was known for her discipline; the kids feared her, as did the adults. She was an intimidating woman. She was also my “girlfriend”: Moya Padrooha.

Every night, Polina would show up at my stoop and usher me back to her home. We’d cross a street that knew more cows than cars and enter through the only door of her house. I’d slide my shoes off and sit in my usual spot: a corner chair at her small kitchen table.

Within moments, Polina would place shallow white bowls full of homemade borscht on the table before me. Brown bread came next, followed by Ukrainian moonshine. She’d then take her seat next to mine and we’d raise our glasses. “Nazdarovya!” (“To your health!”) we’d cheer before tipping the vodka back. Ugh!

Polina would then bite into the heel of the bread, her favorite part. Dinner had begun. Between bites, I spoke in broken Ukrainian while Polina did her best to understand me. She would reply slowly, but I still struggled to translate her words. “Yish, Saimon!” she would finally say, signaling for me to continue eating, and I would; her food was hearty and delicious!

When dinner was done, it was time for tea and cookies. Polina would reposition her chair to face the television in the living room. She would then tune it to her favorite Ukrainian soap opera and we’d watch it together. Sometimes she would cry, overwhelmed by the drama. When the tea was done and I was stuffed, I’d thank Polina for dinner, wish her goodnight, and head back home.

That was my evening routine for two years, and I treasure every moment of it. Never in a million years did I imagine I'd find myself living in a small Ukrainian village of 500 people. But there I was, sharing a meal with Polina, a strong-willed, gold-toothed, warm-as-can-be Ukrainian grandmother.

My evenings with Polina were just one of a thousand memories the Peace Corps afforded me. The Peace Corps, an ambassador of good since 1961, has given 225,000 Americans the opportunity to live and do volunteer work with everyday people in communities around the world. 

I volunteered at the village K–11 school, teaching English and Health as well as organizing before- and after-school activities. The school was the center of the community, the place where its people connected. The big kids helped the little ones. The grandmoms spent time with the lunch ladies. Everyone attended and enjoyed the school events and concerts. The community was one big family. They took care of each other. And they took care of me.

It’s a way of life I often think about: the role of a school as a community’s hub. We’re often reminded that communities help young people succeed. They say it takes a village to raise a child. And the village that taught me that lesson was Dubovi.


Simon WilliamsComment